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A Journey of Hope

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Every night when they say their prayers, Kimberly Cox incorporates a story for her 3-year-old daughter, Hope.

It doesn't start with "Once upon a time," but it does take place far, far away and it has a happy ending.

It's the tale of how Cox and Hope became a family and all Cox went through to adopt the little girl and bring her home to North Litchfield from Kazakhstan two years ago.

"I wanted to have a child so badly," said Cox, 46, a special education teacher at Waccamaw Middle School. She loves being around children so much that she used to work as a nanny after school, and she looked after children so often for families at her church, that she was known as the "All Saints Baby Sitter."

She enjoyed all that, but she wanted a baby of her own.

"I always wanted to be a mama," she said, casting an emotion-laden look toward her daughter, a pint-sized ball of energy with straight, dark hair and almond-shaped brown eyes. Clad in pink, Hope dashes back and forth in a nearby play area, the picture of a happy, healthy child.

The decision to adopt was the best one Cox ever made, she said. But she quickly found the combination of her age and single status worked against her. She was unlikely to be given a baby in the United States.

She applied to be a foster parent, but was rejected.

"I could have adopted an older child, but being a teacher, I know about bonding. I wanted a baby," she said, the longing she felt still clear in her voice.

Unwilling to give up her dream, Cox started looking into foreign adoptions, and on May 7, 2007, she applied to adopt a child from Gladney Adoption Center in Kazakhstan, a country nestled between Russia and China. "Everywhere else I looked, the people picked the child for you, but in Kazakhstan you travel blind and when you go to the orphanage, you pick the baby out," Cox said.

Traveling blind means the prospective parents don't see photos, medical records or any other information about children in the orphanage before they arrive.

Cox liked the idea of being able to meet the children and pick the one who was right for her.

But after having her application reviewed, receiving a letter of invitation to visit Kazakhstan and months of having an area bank save new bills for her (the only kind that are accepted for exchange in Kazakhstan), she almost didn't go.

She was treated extremely well in Kazakhstan, but before she went, she'd heard "horror stories" about traveling to that part of the world, she said. And because of the length of time she would have to be overseas, none of her friends or family were able to accompany her. The idea of traveling halfway across the world by herself was more than daunting.

"I was scared to death," she said. "I'd been to many places, but always with people. I prayed and prayed and finally got up the nerve to go." But she was still second guessing the decision right up until she boarded an overseas flight in Washington, D.C., nearly a year after she'd sent in her adoption application.

"When I got on the first plane, from Myrtle Beach, I'd already made up my mind that I would fly to Washington, but as soon as I got there I would fly back home," she said.

She spent the flight engaged in another round of prayers and said they were answered when the plane sat on the runway for so long that by the time it reached the terminal and she was allowed to disembark, there was no time for worries.

"I literally had to run,” she said. "I didn't have time to think."

The doors closed behind her as soon as she boarded and she knew she was meant to be on that flight. "It was a God thing," she said.

Cox landed in Frankfurt, Germany, where she was consumed by panic again during an eight-hour layover. But having already come so far, she decided to stick to her course.

The next flight she boarded took her to Kazakhstan. She landed in Almaty, the nation's former capital, around midnight.

"I was told this man would pick me up. They told me he was old, but they didn't tell me he was 85, had gold teeth and an old car," she said.

"He could only speak broken English, but he had a sign with my name on it, so I got in the car with him."

He took her through the dark, unfamiliar streets to a hotel for the night, and the next morning she flew to Zhezkazgan City, where she met Ella Gozorozha, who works for what Cox describes as Kazakhstan's version of the Department of Social Services.

Gozorozha acted as Cox's interpreter and guide while she was in Zhezkazgan City. The women bonded immediately and Cox came to think of Gozorozha and her husband, Alexander Zhmakin, as family.

In addition to taking Cox to her hotel, Gozorozha helped her feel comfortable in a city where she didn't know anyone and was unfamiliar with the customs.

She also helped Cox find food.

"I'm a very picky eater," Cox said.

Horse meat is popular in Kazakhstan and Cox didn't want to sample any of that. Many foods aren't wrapped in Kazakhstan the way they are in the U.S., so that also made her wary."I went over there prepared to starve," Cox said. "I was afraid I would eat something that would make me sick over there and I wouldn't be able to get my baby."

It wasn't worth the risk, so Cox ate very carefully. She lost 40 pounds during the three months she was in Kazakhstan.

It was more than two weeks after she left the U.S. that, escorted by Gozorozha, she went to be interviewed by adoption officials as a prospective parent.

Everything was going well until talk turned to Cox's brother, Buffy, 42. He has autistic cerebral palsy, but Cox said she thinks the diagnosis was lost in translation and the officials worried he might be dangerous.

"I was sweating and in tears" when the interviewer went into another room to talk to a colleague, Cox said.

Gozorozha talked her through it.

Cox passed the interview and went to the orphanage next. It was very clean — the cleanest place she saw during her stay — and the babies were well taken care of, she said, but there were no toys and the children aren't allowed to go outside and play.

The children there start toilet training at just over a year old and early childhood education is a top priority.

Hope knew all her colors and shapes at 2 and can already spell her name.

"Every teacher she's had has said she’s literally brilliant," Cox said.

Hope was the second child presented to Cox and it was "love at first sight," Cox said.

The head physician at the orphanage met her and Gozorozha when they arrived and Cox was asked about the kind of child she wanted. She had gone prepared for twins, but the twins that were available were sickly and the doctor didn’t want to send them home with a single mom.

Next, a little girl was brought out and Cox was asked if she would take her. The child was precious, Cox said, and she spent a day and a half with her at the orphanage.

"I loved her," Cox said, "but I knew this wasn't my child."

In Kazakhstan, adoptive parents almost always take the child they're presented with. It's almost unheard of to ask to see another, but Cox believed it was the right thing for her and took a chance.

"She presented me with another little girl and she had big brown eyes and brown hair and the most angelic little face," Cox recalled. "It was Hope and I just knew. I knew immediately she was mine.

"I only got to stay there for two hours and I only had 15 minutes left when they brought her out, but I said she's mine and I don't care if she's got problems or anything, I want her."

That was April 18, one day after Cox's birthday, and Hope is the best present she's ever received, she said. She'll never forget the moment the baby was placed in her arms.

It was May 28 before Cox was able to take Hope from the orphanage. That was the first time the little girl had ever been outside and she was terrified of the birds.

After that Cox spent a month trying to get a passport for her daughter so she could get a visa for the child. In all, it was an exhausting and emotionally-draining experience. But at the same time, it was "awesome," she said. And for Hope, she wouldn't hesitate to do it again.

More than two years later, it's a tale Hope knows well. Her bedtime story doesn't include all the details, but she gets the highlights every night and interjects some of the information with Cox's prompting.

Hope knows she was wearing a blue dress when her mother first saw her. That it was Gozorozha who helped Cox find Hope, and she knows the name of the doctor who presented her to Cox.

Cox tells Hope she prayed and prayed for a little girl. Asked who that little girl is, Hope happily exclaims "Me!" and claps her tiny hands together.

"I want Hope to know where she came from," Cox said. "I want her to know she has a biological mom, but I'm her mother, too, and she was wanted very much. She didn't come from my belly, but she's mine in my heart."

Cox is working on a book called "Mommy's Journey for Hope" that tells the story. She hopes to publish it someday, but if nothing else, it will be a good keepsake for Hope.

Helping add to the story and fill in details for Hope about the country where she and Cox were united are Gozorozha and her husband. Along with their son Vlad, 8, they just finished a visit to North Litchfield. It was their first trip to the U.S. and they brought souvenirs and pictures of Kazakhstan for Hope to keep.

Gozorozha said it was wonderful to see Cox and Hope together and so happy.

"Kim is the kindest woman I've ever met. I don't know how to explain it. And Hope is like a little angel," Gozorozha said. "You can see it in Kim's eyes how much she loves Hope and her eyes told me [at the adoption center] she really wanted this baby and only this baby."

Cox said it was God who told her Hope was the child meant for her and, seeing them together, Gozorozha said she doesn’t doubt that for a second.

"Hope is blessed," she said. "They're blessed to have each other."

At home, Hope has not only her mother to dote on her, but also her grandparents O.J. and Sharon Cox.

O.J. has taken her to Disney World three times in the last two years, and she's visited Dollywood and Sea World an equal number of times.

"She's spoiled rotten," Cox said, flashing a smile that says she doesn't regret it one bit.

Cox's brother gets jealous of the time Cox spends with Hope, but he adores the little girl, too, and she, him.

"Hope tries to take care of him," Sharon said. "When she was still crawling, she would try to put his shoes on and feed him and brush his hair."

Buffy can't talk, Sharon said, but he and Hope communicate. She recounted one night when they were sitting together and Hope told her they were "talking Buffy's special talk."

Cox said she feels especially blessed to have Hope, because Americans now trying to adopt in Kazakhstan are being turned down. Twelve American couples recently had adoptions denied, she said.

No explanations were given, Gozorozha said, but she speculates it may have to do with reports of children adopted from overseas being abused.

Cox said she's sorry for those families and is glad she decided not to wait any longer to go through the adoption process.

She can no longer imagine a life without the little girl she calls her angel.

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